Euan McColm: Salman Rushdie attack shines light on female writers bombarded with death threats

The attempt to murder Sir Salman Rushdie at an event in the state of New York must outrage every one of us. There can be no equivocation about this. There are not two sides to this horrific story.

More than 30 years after the celebrated writer was forced to go into hiding after then Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, calling for his death over perceived insults to Islam contained in the novel The Satanic Verses, Rushdie has paid an appalling price for his courageous defence of freedom of expression.

As Rushdie prepared to discuss the subject of the USA as a refuge for writers and other artists in exile at an event at the Chautauqua Institution on Friday, a 24-year-old man rushed the stage and launched a frenzied knife attack. In the early hours of yesterday morning, the novelist’s agent reported that Rushdie had suffered liver damage and may lose an eye and the use of an arm.

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Rushdie should not be a hero just to those of us who write for a living but to all of us. Freedom of speech, after all, is not a privilege reserved to one sector of society, it is a fundamental right - hard won - that everyone in a democracy should enjoy.

JK Rowling. Picture: Mike Marsland/WireImageJK Rowling. Picture: Mike Marsland/WireImage
JK Rowling. Picture: Mike Marsland/WireImage

Reassuringly, the majority of reaction to the depraved attack on Rushdie recognises this.

But - and, sadly, there’s always a but - there are those whose grasp of the concept of free speech remains weak.

This was perfectly - and bleakly - illustrated by some responses to a tweet by the novelist, JK Rowling. She described the attack on her fellow author as “horrible” only to be informed “you’re next”.

This, I’m afraid, was for from surprising. Rowling is no stranger to death threats. Nor, sadly, are a great, many female writers who have exercised their right to free speech in order to raise concerns about a trans-ideology that’s every bit as dogmatic and resistant to debate as the most conservative of religions.

For suggesting that legislation that preserves single-sex spaces such as refuges should be adhered to, Rowling and her family have been threatened and abused, often by people who delude themselves into thinking they are progressives.

This is a fact of life for a number of female writers. The campaigning journalist and author Julie Bindel was physically attacked for having the audacity to attend a feminist event in Edinburgh. The writers Gillian Philip and Rachel Rooney, creators of works of kindness and imagination for young people, have been bombarded with threats and hounded out of the publishing industry.

And cowards - many of whom will performatively weep and wail about the attack on Rushdie - have said nothing.

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Ah, says the intellectual, pirouetting on a pin-head, but these situations are not comparable. Rushdie was hospitalised on Friday while these women, with their hateful feminism, have merely been held to account for their views.

In fact, death threats against Rushdie are precisely the same as death threats against Rowling or Bindel. A death threat is a death threat is a death threat. There is no sliding scale of morality when it comes to calling for the murder of someone with whose views we might disagree. It is wrong and - to borrow a phrase from the ideologues who hound these women - there can be no debate about that.

I noted on Friday that the Society of Authors - the writers’ union - issued a statement condemning the attack on Rushdie. This was a necessary declaration of solidarity with a man whose refusal to bow to the threats of extremists makes him such an inspiration.

However, I struggle to find evidence that the society has ever offered the same solidarity to female writers whose gender critical views have seen them relentlessly attacked.

It is not solely on that particular subject that the liberal intelligentsia has been found wanting in recent years.

After Islamist terrorists murdered 12 people and injured 11 more in an attack on the office of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in 2015, the free speech organisation PEN America presented the editors with an award for courage. More than 200 writers protested. According to novelist Joyce Carol Oates (a name described by the late Gore Vidal as the “three saddest words in the English language”) and others, there was a “critical difference between staunchly supporting expression that violates the acceptable, and enthusiastically rewarding such expression”. In other words, some free speech is better than others; only a particular type of free speech - the type with which we are comfortable - should be celebrated,

This lazy thinking dressed up as intellectualism does nothing but undermine the precious principle of freedom of speech. It allows moral cowards to explain to the rest of us that freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences. In fact, it does. Or, at least, it damned well should.

Populist politicians across the world - including those in government in London and Edinburgh - are no defenders of freedom of speech. Sure, they may, from time to time, recite a form of words that says they are but they are often to be heard attacking inconvenient messengers, framing journalists as the enemies of the people and frequently remaining silent when that tactic feeds a disturbing anger.

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Most of us, I feel sure, are able to take a clear view of what has happened to Rushdie. There is no justification for what happened on Friday, no room for a “yes, but” in any sane reaction.

But anyone outraged by the attempt on Sir Salman Rushdie’s life while remaining silent on the bombardment with death threats of feminists who dare to describe their experiences doesn’t really care about freedom of speech as much as they think they do.



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